Theology as Provisional
The only knowledge of the world that is available to us is probable knowledge. Everything in the world we live in is based on probability. We are forced to base our day to day decisions on what is probably true, what will probably happen, and so forth. I'm sitting in a chair. I suppose it might collapse. Any number of things might happen. A meteorite might come crashing through the window and kill me in the next few minutes. But, since neither of these things are the least bit probable, I need not worry about them — or even think about them.
I can't wait for absolute certainty. I must act based on what I believe is likely to be true, what is likely to happen, and so forth. The Cartesian reconstruction (or Lockean reconstruction) of knowledge — arriving at certainty based on "sense experience" — is a mistaken quest. That kind of certainty is simply not available.
I am forced to interpret every item of information I receive in the light of all the other (probable) knowledge that I have. I'm likely to be suspicious of information that doesn't "fit." But, sometimes new information will force me to revise my ideas about what I thought I knew.
And, the situation is even worse in the case of spoken or written information. I try to reconstruct what the speaker meant to say. What do those words usually mean? What is the context? What verbal clues were there? What gestures, what facial expressions? You say to me: "Good morning." I presume it is a friendly greeting. That's usually what those words convey. Or: you may actually be commenting on the beauty of the day. Or (based on tone of voice and facial expression and even the nature of the weather that day) maybe you are being ironic — maybe you mean to convey just the opposite of what those words would usually mean. In the case of written information, I have even less to go on. I must ask: what do these words usually mean? What is the cultural and historic context in which this was written? Is there any reason to think the writer is being ironic? And, so forth.
And, this fact is of the greatest importance to theology. Theology begins in living, ongoing dialogue with Scripture. So, I am always asking: what does this (passage, chapter, book, etc.) probably mean? I suppose it might mean anything. The issue is always: what is it most likely to mean? It is never simply what it might mean: it’s the probable meaning that I’m after.
Theology is a conversation with Scripture.
Since this science [theology] is partly speculative and partly practical, it transcends all others speculative and practical. Now one speculative science is said to be nobler than another, either by reason of its greater certitude, or by reason of the higher worth of its subject matter. In both these respects this science surpasses other speculative sciences; in point of greater certitude, because other sciences derive their certitude from the natural light of human reason, which can err; whereas this derives its certitude from the light of divine knowledge, which cannot be misled: in point of the higher worth of its subject-matter because this science treats chiefly of those things which by their sublimity transcend human reason; while other sciences consider only those things which are within reason’s grasp. Of the practical sciences, that one is nobler which is ordained to a further purpose, as political science is nobler than military science; for the good of the army is directed to the good of the State. But the purpose of this science, in so far as it is practical, is eternal bliss; to which as to an ultimate end the purposes of every practical science are directed. Hence it is clear that from every standpoint, it is nobler than other sciences.— Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Part 1, Question 1, Article 5: "Whether sacred doctrine is nobler than other sciences?"
and, further down the page:
For it accepts its principles not from other sciences, but immediately from God, by revelation. Therefore it does not depend upon other sciences as upon the higher, but makes use of them as of the lesser, and as handmaidens: even so the master sciences make use of the sciences that supply their materials, as political of military science.— Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Part 1, Question 1, Article 5, Reply to Objection 2: "Whether sacred doctrine is nobler than other sciences?"
In this type of formulation, certainty is obtained in theology by reference to Scripture.
How can this be right? It can't! Scripture comes to us through human beings, influenced (as all people are) by their times, their culture and their situation. This is not a deficiency in Scripture, but part of it's glory: human words, from human beings, inspired by God; writings drawn together into a book because they are formative to Christian faith. These are the materials that nurture and sustain faith. This doesn't mean they are free from ambiguity. This doesn't mean that they are always clear at first glance.
And, it certainly doesn't mean we always, unfailing understand them correctly.
Our understanding of Scripture is conditioned by our understanding of language and by our understanding of the world. As our knowledge deepens and changes, so our understanding of Scripture and its relevance to life deepens and changes. And, it should.
I am also a culture-influenced and limited human being, but my life is lived in dialogue with Scripture, as I seek to discern the voice of God in my life today. I see how Scripture spoke and functioned for the culture of it's time to discover how it might speak and function for me.
Furthermore, all theology is provisional because the final revelation of Christ has not yet come. Everything we say and teach is an interim report. Theological judgments are provisional.
In the discussions of systematic theology, then, in the sequence of its argumentation, in its construction of coherent models of the world as determined by God's action, the question of truth should be regarded as open. Of course, if it turns out to be true that there is a God, that Jesus is risen, and that everything is in his hand, then this has been true all along. It does not depend on the effort of the theologian. Presumably, this was the most profound reason to attribute to some authority prior to theological reasoning the power to guarantee the divine truth. But the scriptures themselves tell us that the universal recognition of God's glory will not occur before the eschaton. Until then, the truth of his revelation will continue to be in dispute. Therefore, our knowledge is imperfect, as Paul says (1 Cor. 13:9), and this applies to theological knowledge in the first place. We are called to accept this situation and not to demand a final guarantee of truth before we even start to think. The modern criticism of authoritarian argument on the one hand, and the criticism of the retreat to subjective commitment on the other, have caused many theologians to surrender Christian apologetics and dogmatics, to surrender even the Christian truth claims themselves, and to turn to what are considered 'relevant issues' of the time. But there is no reason to lose heart and to sell out just because there is no a priori guarantee of truth. The effort at systematic reconstruction of Christian doctrine is even more needed than in earlier periods of the church, because now it should be clear that one has to deal with the truth claims of the tradition in this framework. The results will remain provisional, but that is in keeping not only with the spirit of modern science but also with Paul's understanding of the provisional form of our knowledge, due to the incompleteness of salvation history itself. To engage in systematic theology in this way is quite compatible with personal confidence in the ultimate truth of the Christian doctrine, even more so than on the basis of a prior commitment to authority. A Christian should be ready to leave it to God himself to prove definitively his reality, and he or she should be content to perceive but vaguely and to adumbrate the infinite wealth of the truth of God. But certainly, we need to be reassured of that truth, and precisely there is the place for systematic theology.— An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Eerdmans 1991) pp. 17, 18.
This does not mean saying nothing. Far from it! It means stating our case with due recognition of our human situation. It means stating our case with humility. It means talking to people as one human being should talk to another — about the ultimate questions that give meaning and purpose to our lives.
We are limited and fallible human beings on a journey of faith and understanding. And, may God have mercy on us all.